MCA market insight director Steve Gotham looks at the rise and rise of veganism and its impact on menu development over the past two years.

Right then, climb aboard and strap yourself in, we are jumping on the bandwagon that is the rise and rise of veganism. Seemingly barely a week goes by without news of a new dedicated café/pub/restaurant opening or the launch of a new product range. Veganism has arguably been the single most significant influence on the composition of menus for several years and as such, it is important to take stock – gelatin-free, of course.

The Vegan ripple effect

According to research by the Vegan Society, the number of vegans in the UK has quadrupled since 2014, rising to 600,000 in 2018, to represent just over 1% of the adult population. But this is only part of the story. MCA’s Hot Topics consumer research in March 2019 found that 2% of adults had adopted vegan or vegetarian diets in the past six months, to add to the 7% who were already plant-led. More significantly perhaps, was the one in five proportion who reported they were actively eating less meat.

Looking ahead, and courtesy of the Future of Food report produced by Sainsbury’s and their predictions for 2025, by this time 25% of adults will either be vegan or vegetarian, with the proportion of flexitarians set to rise to 50%.

Dietary change motivations

Returning to the MCA consumer research, the primary reason why consumers are making dietary changes is because of health benefits. To the fore here will be some reduced and sustained weight loss considerations. Tying for second place, were considerations around reduced meat consumption being friendlier to animals and to the environment. On this subject, I visited a café in Emsworth last weekend (the Greenhouse café if you must know – and no, I am not a vegan, though my partner is). Interestingly, printed on the back of the vegan menu were several pro-vegan messages. Perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea, but I was informed that as a vegan, every day I could save 1,100 gallons of water, 30 square feet of forest, 40 pounds of grain and the life of one animal. Some thoughts to accompany my food for sure.

Vegans have never had it so good

Ever watchful of NPD opportunities, suppliers, operators and retailers are targeting plant-based innovation. Mintel has reported that one in six products launched in UK supermarkets in 2018 carried a vegan claim. In terms of the impact within the out-of-home market, however, there is no better place to look than MCA’s Menu Tracker. Scrutinising the latest menus of over 120 casual, fast food and pub restaurant operators within the London region, there was a grand total of 1,086 products flagged either as vegan or having a vegan alternative available. Significantly, this number has almost quadrupled from the 284 available in Spring/Summer 2017.

Looking more closely at the current vegan offerings by course, mains lead the way with 549 or 51% of entries, followed by sides (22%) and starters (18%). What with desserts also included, veganism is clearly a pan-menu phenomenon. Looked at by operator, then an impressive 17 chains have over 20 vegan options available, with four offering 30+ items. This list, which I am not sure many would accurately call out, is headed by The Diner (35), The Real Greek (31), Bella Italia (30) and Tampopo (30). The Diner has a specific vegan & vegetarian menu, which includes several breakfast products as well as assorted burgers, dogs, salads and sides. The Real Greek also has a dedicated vegan menu, which features a strong cold and hot meze range. Interestingly to some perhaps, the menu also features a reference to how the Greek vegan tradition is centuries old, and can be traced back to Pythagoras around 550 BCE. As such, they go on to suggest that the Greeks invented veganism!

Vegan influence punching far above its weight?

For some naysayers, the vegan boom is over-hyped and an over-reaction to the still relatively small proportion of plant-based subscribers. For sure this consumer group is skewed towards younger female adults, and you would be very surprised by brands with a suitably disposed customer profile not to be four-square behind this. But there is also a certain ‘tyranny of the minority’ factor here, in that if you are not covering this base, then you are at risk of missing out on more lucrative larger group spends. In addition, the longer term environmentally and sustainably responsible trends are very much supportive of at least, growing flexitarianism, which means plant-based influences will become truly mass-market and mainstream.

For now, given the rapid expansion of vegan offerings, it is inevitable that some will be more miss than hit, and that ongoing product reviews and NPD will be essential. But without doubt, there are prizes to be had for having a hit. Look no further than Greggs, which earlier this year reported great success with the introduction of their vegan sausage roll, reporting that it had quickly secured a place within their top five biggest selling lines.

It is certainly looking like this vegan bandwagon will not be leaving town anytime soon.